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School leaders on teacher stress and 6 ways schools can help reduce it

Corrinna PoleDecember 16, 2020

Panel of school leaders at The Great Exchange Student Engagement Summit 2020

From the shutdowns, the pivots, and the adjustments to remote-then-hybrid-then-in-person learning (and back), teachers have faced a mountain of challenges since last winter. No matter how experienced they are, this “unprecedented school year” has made educators feel like freshmen.

Recently, a panel of school leaders sat down with Kimberley Harrington Markus at Classcraft’s The Great Exchange: Student Engagement Summit to share strategies to help support education’s essential workers: Teachers. Former New Jersey Commissioner of Education, Harrington Markus is currently Executive Director of Innovation and Personnel for the Mount Olive Township School District.

The other leaders who brought their insights to the panel were:

  • Jessica Reese, principal of J.M. Hill Elementary School in Pennsylvania,
  • Dr. Tamu Lucero,  superintendent of Stamford Public Schools in Connecticut,
  • Dr. Michael Salvatore, superintendent of Long Branch Public Schools in New Jersey, and
  • Dr. Jan Vesely, superintendent of Kyrene School District in Arizona.
Click here to watch the full session on- demand.

Signs of teacher stress school leaders should watch for

Adjusting to teaching in a time of crisis hasn’t been easy. Everything keeps changing. Known as being excellent planners, that chaos has made it nearly impossible for teachers to prepare or know what to expect from one moment to the next. 

The longer the situation continues, the more it negatively impacts teachers’ mental health, leaving many even more stressed. Harrington Markus asked the school leaders to share the impact they’ve been seeing in their districts.

The panel said absenteeism, sick days, and leaves of absences have become more common and frequent. They also noted more teachers leaving the profession. Most concerning for the school leaders is seeing their once confident educators showing uncertainty, fear, concern, and frustration.

As the panel explained, teachers can no longer do what they’ve always done. While they’ve continued to go above and beyond to meet the needs of their students and put in place the new procedures and protocols, they’re left feeling anxious, overwhelmed, and vulnerable.

The panelists’ most uplifting advice to teachers was to find power in permission.

“Please give yourself permission to let go of the guilt, to let go of the fear and just put one foot in front of the other and take care of yourselves, take care of our kids,” said Dr. Vesely. “The most important thing is connecting with our kids in the way that only you can do, and in such a special way.”

That permission, the panelists’ explained, should extend to giving yourself permission to make mistakes and asking for help when you need it.

“Go slow to go fast,” Reese explained. “You don’t have to have everything perfect. We’re all making mistakes. We’re all new at this. Be kind to yourself.”

Dr. Lucero noted that everyone handles stress differently and high tensions have led to harsh words and emails. She advised school leaders to acknowledge the struggles staff are facing and remember to be sensitive, supportive, and listen to messages with their hearts. 

“When I listen with my heart I hear [them] say ‘I need help’, or ‘I need guidance’, or ‘I need more support’,” said Dr. Lucero. “Sometimes they don’t know what they need and they are just trying to feel they can control something.” 

In a climate where everything feels like a priority, simply reaching out to let someone know they are seen, cared for, and are being offered your help can be the difference between burning-out and thriving. 

How else can schools nourish teachers in such stressful times? Here are some suggestions from the panelists. 

6 supportive wellness strategies for teachers

1. Make time to answer questions

Dr. Lucero introduced popup meetings for principals to answer common questions and update them on new or changing information. While they found they often responded to the same questions in the sessions or reviewed information already covered, Dr. Lucero said it was important to not get frustrated or rush through the process. Investing time in the sessions builds teachers’ knowledge and confidence. 

“A lot of people’s fear comes from not understanding and not knowing,” Dr. Lucero explained. “We have introduced a lot of new vocabulary for staff members this year that they did not understand. Who knew eight months ago what ‘contact tracing’ was?! You’ve got to be ready to support them and to answer questions.”

2. Empower teachers with choice

Dr. Vesely’s school may be fully back in-person, but they’ve given teachers some options and flexibility to choose to deliver instruction in-person or online. They’ve also reduced the school day by one hour because of the demand placed on teachers.

Having that choice helps educators feel like they have more flexibility to cope.

3. Offer a schoolwide tap out 

Give teachers the choice to tap out when they are overwhelmed and remove any fear or uncertainties they might feel about asking for it by making it clear that no questions will be asked.

Reese explained how it works: At any point during the day, if a teacher needs it, they can tap-out of teaching by calling up to the office so someone else can be sent to cover their class. 

“We forget that [teachers] are so overwhelmed that those little things like your internet not working, which really isn’t a big deal […] it’s just enough to get them off schedule and routine that something that seems minor isn’t minor,” Reese said. “Tap out. We’ll come in, no questions asked. We can fix your internet [or] do something with students. It’s a get out of jail free. Tap out and we’re there for you.”

4. Encourage ways for teachers to practice self-care 

Teachers likely know how important it is to have balance in their lives. But they are feeling too overwhelmed to know how to build it in, or they simply don’t have the time.

Help them with reminders to try something new each week or to start their day with mindful reading is a nice place to start. Support them even more by giving them the time and place to create small opt-in groups to practice wellness activities like mindfulness or yoga. Even simply offering them a way to get them together with others so they can build relationships can support their mental health.  

5. Be present and listen … really listen 

There is so much going on in education, not to mention people’s personal lives, it’s really easy for teachers to become overwhelmed. That can spill over into how they react or communicate.

Try to understand the issues from the teacher’s perspective. Remember: don’t assume to know what they need. Ask them and really hear them. Panelists shared how they set up teacher focus groups to include them in the process of finding solutions that will support them. 

“Self-care and wellness are connected and the last piece of this is the equity component,” said Dr. Salvatore. “Self-care is understanding self-value in terms of you having a voice. We can’t be in the midst of civil unrest and try to ignore the fact that wellness is connected to all this. So having intimate conversations that are courageous, that are important, and letting people talk and share, I think it’s critical right now.”

6. Ensure systems of support are in place 

Teachers are experts at their craft. But managing all the new information that comes with the pandemic is a whole other ballgame. 

To help their team out, Dr. Salvatore’s school organized a speaker series of professionals from their local health department to talk to teachers. They then brought in more experts including doctors, epidemiologists, and head nurses to help mitigate fear and uncertainty. The live events provided an opportunity for staff members to ask questions in real-time. 

“It’s not that our professionals don’t trust us, but they need to hear from someone else,” Dr. Salvatore explained. “We’ve got degrees in ed leadership, but we’re not MDs and disease specialists.”

In addition to providing information, some of the panelists organized district health coaches or expanded the support services of school counselors to teachers and other educational staff.

Final takeaways for leaders

While this is an unusual situation, it’s also an opportunity for the educational community to reinvent itself and come out stronger. School leaders have to take care of themselves and their teams. The panels top suggestions: 

  • Don’t forget to be kind to yourself
  • Ask for help when you need it
  • Answer every email with heart, love, care, and concern
  • Be present
  • Continue to ask “what can I do to help?”
  • Know your people
  • Listen with heart